Just be glad it isn't The Expendables 3-D.
The third installment in Sylvester Stallone's jobs program for expired action heroes is easily the best of the bunch, which is not to say it's any good. The Expendables series -- basically what we'd get if Marvel released Iron Man, Thor and Captain America and then sat on The Avengers for 25 years or so — aims low and somehow still manages to underwhelm. Its latest iteration is best appreciated as the rich library of GIFs it seems destined to become. Arnold Schwarzenegger, sporting an impressive array of loud shirts, an Oh God Don't Sneak Up on Me Like That haircut, and the estimable movie name Trench Mauser, emerges as the most GIFable of this swollen-necked band of brothers.
Each of the biannual Expendables missions has come from a different director, only one them named Stallone, who has writing credit on them all. Once upon a time, he wrote Rocky, a more mournful and sensitive film than you remember. Now our best hope is that 'twas his silver pen that gave Jason Statham's knife-throwing specialist the line, "I now pronounce you man and knife!"
But this is not the Mission: Impossible series, wherein each iteration gives us a different strong filmmaker's recognizable, if minor, variation on the formula. Interchangeable even within the narrow confines of their genre, each Expendables picture features indifferently shot and edited shooting and exploding, punctuated by interludes of jockish jocularity that screenwriters like William Goldman or Shane Black would've been called in to punch up back in the good old days. Individual entries are distinguished solely by who-all Stallone has managed to coax into spending a few shooting days in sunny, economical Bulgaria this time.
Which is why The Expendables 3 is easily the pick of whatever the old-age analog of "the litter" is. This is the film that gives fisticuffs 'n' fireballs lovers what they never knew they wanted: more Kelsey Grammer.
Bruce Willis' squinting CIA operative from the earlier films is "out of the picture," as his squinting CIA replacement, Harrison Ford (Harrison Ford!), tells Stallone, reprising his role as the mercenaries' beret-wearing ringleader, Barney. Ford dispatches Barney and his Expendables — not a beloved doo-wop ensemble, but soldiers of fortune working off the books for The Man — to take down a particularly nasty arms dealer, whose identity is best left for viewers to discover. (It's Mel Gibson.) At 71 when the picture was shot last year, Ford is the tribal elder, and for approximately zero seconds you think he's just another craven desk jockey seething into a secure Blackberry. But it turns out you can't keep an old space pirate down.
Happily, Ford's isn't the only frown giving this thing its soupcon of novelty: Ronda Rousey, a 27-year-old MMA star who cultivates an image as the sport's unbeatable villain, and who recently rated a profile in the New Yorker titled "Mean Girl" — is in the movie, part of a younger crew of Expendables Stallone recruits after a casualty causes him to rethink things and throw over his old-timers like he might a faithful, loving, age-appropriate spouse. (The closest thing to a spouse his character has is Statham. A mere 21 years younger than Stallone, he's one of the kicked-out old-timers.) More confoundingly, also present is Victor Ortiz, a welterweight boxer best known for getting knocked out by Floyd Mayweather three years ago after headbutting him and then kissing him on the cheek during the biggest fight of his career.
More rewardingly, so is Wesley Snipes, returning to the screen after his prison term on tax charges, in a film that opens with Stallone and three retired athletes — Statham, Terry Crews and Randy Couture — busting him out of jail.
Actually, it's a jail-train.
Actually, it's an ARMORED PRISON TRANSPORT, a lifesaving title card informs us, lest our eyes beguile us into concluding it's an ARMORED TRANSPORT PRISON.
Here's the good news: Snipes, 52, still looks as good and moves as fluidly as he did starring opposite Stallone in Demolition Man 21 years ago, though it's impossible to tell here if he's doing his own parkour. He even acts a little, chomping into his role as Doctor Death — an assassin and medic who's possibly been driven a little crazy by his years of solitary confinement — before getting elbowed out of the movie.
Even more than Stallone, Snipes is a tragically wasted talent. A generation ago, electrifying performances in New Jack City and the Spike Lee joints Mo' Better Blues and Jungle Fever made him look like someone who'd be surprising us onscreen for decades. His elegant physicality made him a natural for action pictures, too. But he said yes to too many, and they ruined him.
You could say The Expendables 3 has more cameos than 35 years of Muppet movies, were it not for the fact that almost everyone, including '80s movie villain Robert Davi — who shows up exactly long enough to ask Gibson to get him some nuclear weapons — got his or her own poster to promote this thing. The effect is something like a telethon or a second-rate awards show with a body count in the mid-triple digits. (The film is rated PG-13 for scenes of extreme indifference.)
At least Snipes and Grammer get moments to shine. So does Antonio Banderas (!), playing a motormouthed mercenary who lies about his age hoping Barney will hire him. (I pretended he was still playing the sexy escaped mental patient from Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which enhanced my enjoyment considerably.) Few of the fresher faces are afforded this opportunity. Ortiz, Glen Powell and Kellan Lutz (from the Twilight movies, because there is a 0.09 percent chance 14-year-old girls will want to see this) each have the charisma of Wet-Naps. At least Powell gets to tell a sheer cliff face, "I belong on you," which is not how I was taught to talk to mountains.
The misallocation of Rousey is more disappointing. Here is a world-class athlete at the peak of her powers, so naturally director Patrick Foster shows us her fights in jarring, quick-cut closeups, exactly the way you would shoot around the physical limitations of, say, a 68-year-old action star. This problem is endemic to action films now: Directors are so reliant on chaotic cutting, they have no idea what to do with a physical talent who can do something astonishing right there IRL on the set.
Curiously, the person who fares best in all of this is Gibson, longtime Hollywood A-lister turned untouchable pariah. His Expendable-turned-sadistic-arms-dealer is named Conrad Stonebanks, which is not as good a movie name as Trench Mauser, but still not too shabby. And maybe it's offscreen stories bleeding into this dumb cartoon, but he makes a believably loathsome malefactor. In Lethal Weapon and Braveheart, he was the guy getting strung up and tortured, howling and eye-bugging his way to redemption or redemption/disembowelment, respectively. Now he's the guy holding the knife. "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," as Aaron Eckhardt said in The Dark Knight, an infinitely better movie in which the villain briefly allows himself to be captured, as Gibson's Stonebanks does here.
Still, his de rigeur We Are Not Very Different, You and I speech to Barney has the ring of truth. When one of the young-pup Expendables dares to interrupt, Gibson tells him, "I'll open your meat shirt and show you your own heart!" William Goldman or Shane Black could do no better.